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Chopra Brothers Tell Story of How They Became Americans and Doctors in Memoir

May 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In their new memoir, "Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny and the American Dream," Deepak and Sanjiv Chopra tell their family story, first as immigrants, then as Americans and how they grew up to become physicians with expertise in very different fields. Jeffrey Brown talks with the Chopras about their journey to America as brothers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a tale of two brothers, immigrants to the U.S. who came from India in the 1970s, doctors who’ve had great success and impacts in different worlds of medicine.

Their story is told in the new book “Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream.” It’s a double memoir by Deepak and Sanjiv Chopra. Older brother Deepak is the bestselling author and authority on Eastern medicine. Younger brother Sanjiv is a professor at the Harvard Medical School and himself author of five books.

I sat down with them recently.

Welcome to both of you.

DEEPAK CHOPRA, Co-Author, “Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream”: Thank you.

SANJIV CHOPRA, Co-Author, “Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream”: Thank you very much.

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JEFFREY BROWN: A key character clearly in your lives, obviously, and the link to a lot of what you did is your father, a physician himself, deeply involved, thoughtful man. Tell me — tell us about him and what he meant.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: It’s very clear that he was the most important influence in both our lives, not that our mother wasn’t. She was a great storyteller.

But he was an amazing, skilled cardiologist and physician. He trained at a time when the EKG was just coming, in the 1940s in England, with people who had actually invented the EKG machine. He could listen to the heart and tell the exact interval, which we call the P.R. interval — that’s the electrical — and to the microseconds the difference between the auricle and the ventricle of beats. He was that good.

He was an amazing diagnostician, too, but he was compassionate, he was empathetic, storyteller, just a renaissance man.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the two of you clearly followed in his footsteps in studying medicine. But I was wondering about the other side of the — the troops — sometimes, there’s a flip side of a father-son relationship, of a rebellion against the father.

Was that there that as well?

SANJIV CHOPRA: I think Deepak did.


SANJIV CHOPRA: He didn’t want to be a doctor. Initially, he wanted to be a journalist. But I will let him tell that part of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that right?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Yes, he wanted both of us to go into the medical profession, and I didn’t want to.

So, I wanted to be a writer, fiction, mostly. And on my 14th birthday, he gifted me a few novels by great people like Sinclair Lewis and Somerset Maugham. And all the protagonists in all the novels were physicians.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So, I went to, I think I want to be a doctor.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, there was a message there.

SANJIV CHOPRA: Oh, yes, a subliminal message there. He planted the seed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

And your experience was a bit more straightforward?

SANJIV CHOPRA: My experience was more straightforward.

And when I was 12 years of age, and we were studying in high school at Saint Columba’s High School in Delhi, I turned blind one day.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write about this, yes.

SANJIV CHOPRA: Yes, I write about that.

And I said, Deepak, Deepak, I can’t see. And he started crying. I have one brother, and he’s turned blind.

They took me to the military hospital in Delhi. The doctors didn’t have the foggiest idea as to what was going on, even thought of hysterical blindness. And our father 300 miles away made the diagnosis by taking the history and said, Sanjiv, you have got that anti-tetanus serum. He is having a rare idiosyncratic reaction to that. Start an intravenous. Give him massive doses of corticosteroids, prednisone.

And my vision returned six hours later.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said, this is what I’m going to do?

SANJIV CHOPRA: And I said, this is what I’m going to do.

But I was afraid to go into cardiology because I thought he was such an esteemed cardiologist. He was physician to the president of the India.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And to Mountbatten.

SANJIV CHOPRA: And to Lord Mountbatten.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And he was the first one to describe mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary hypertension.

And when the Indian soldiers were coming down with this strange sickness in the war with China, he landed a plane 22,000 feet above sea level and he was putting caps in people’s heart while people were shooting each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fascinating chapters in your move to what you’re so well-known for, a move toward ayurvedic medicine.

And you describe — and keeping on the theme of your father — your father considered this superstitious, folk ways, and here you are bringing to the U.S. what was in some, he — I guess many thought of kind of backwards.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And many still do.


DEEPAK CHOPRA: I was very selective, though.

Just because something is ancient doesn’t mean it’s good.


DEEPAK CHOPRA: But there are certain things that have survived, and most are really in the area of how consciousness affects our biology.

So, when I would say your biology is different in different states of consciousness, people said, what kind of rule is that?


DEEPAK CHOPRA: But I also trained in neuroendocrinology, where it’s very clear that every emotion that you have is followed by a molecule that represents that emotion.

So, I was, of course, privy to this ancient wisdom through my own personal experiences and the experiences of my patients, but I also saw the scientific link because of my training in …

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of tensions did this bring about with you or — and your father?

SANJIV CHOPRA: Yes. I thought Deepak was being very courageous, embracing …

JEFFREY BROWN: Courageous.

SANJIV CHOPRA: Courageous.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was wondering about a different …


SANJIV CHOPRA: Yes, crazy also.


SANJIV CHOPRA: And he had a thriving practice in Massachusetts. The medical students from New England Medical Center, Tufts Medical School would rotate through the office. He would teach them.

And then suddenly one day announces he’s going to go to California and do mind-body medicine. But one of my favorite quotes if from Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian. And he once said to dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. I think Deepak found himself and launched this …

SANJIV CHOPRA: He’s a real pioneer.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: California was more tolerant of hippies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back then, right, yes.

The other thing you’re clearly doing in this book is telling an immigrant story, right …

SANJIV CHOPRA: That’s true.

JEFFREY BROWN: … of coming to a country and learning its ways, and especially the early chapters. You have the things that so many have gone through, of learning, watching television and new food and all, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: To what degree — let me ask you, Deepak, first, to what degree do you feel that you became an American, even years later, and — or how much do you still live in both worlds?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: I live in both worlds, and the formative years never go away.

They shape your personality. They shape your character. They shape your values. But we have lived 43 years in the U.S. and 22 years in the — in India, so, obviously, we are American citizens. Both of us received the Ellis Island Award for contributions to the United States.

I have been close to two U.S. presidents and, you know, have had very good fortune meeting just about every major contributor in this country. So, I consider myself an American with an Indian accent.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you feel about that?

SANJIV CHOPRA: I do, too. I feel very American.

I was passionate about cricket. I don’t even think about cricket now anymore. It’s baseball.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the most telling factor of all, right?


And our 6-year-old — our middle daughter, who now has — is married and has two daughters, when she was six, one day came back from school, and when I came back from the hospital, she said, dad, I need to talk to you. I said, everything OK? She said, dad, are we Christian or are we Jewish?

And the reason was, everybody at school was celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas with gifts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right.

SANJIV CHOPRA: And that was very telling.

We used to celebrate a holiday called Diwali. But we would do it on the weekends. So, for the next few years, they didn’t go to school on that day. We took them out. My wife and I took them out to lunch, bought them gifts. And the next day, they went to school, and their classmates said, what happened yesterday? And, we were celebrating Diwali. And then they explained the story behind that.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are going to continue our conversation online. And I will invite our audience to join us there later.

But, for now, the book is “Brotherhood.”

Deepak and Sanjiv Chopra, thank you both very much.


SANJIV CHOPRA: Thank you very much, Jeff.